Vol. 40 No. 8
ByCarla J. DeVelder
Carla J. DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska.
The performance review. In concept, it sounds like a good idea: An employer regularly takes time to review the work of the employee in order to evaluate progress on such areas as professional goals, quality of work, job knowledge, potential, and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Once reviewed, the employer shares this information with the employee who, after providing feedback and input, can move forward in a way that helps him grow professionally and benefits his employer. Good stuff, right?
In reality, performance reviews are often done poorly by those who don’t understand or value the process and within a system that provides little to no pre-planning or objective criteria. Employees often feel “ambushed” or “abused,” feeling criticized for events that happened in the past and are no longer relevant. However, the truth of the matter is that most, if not all of us, will be subject to some sort of evaluation of our professional performance whether we like it or not and whether the system in place is fair or meaningful. Additionally, in tough economic times, performance reviews become an important tool for weeding people out as well as identifying top performers. Thus, it is important to take control of your performance review experience from the outset and use it to your advantage with your current and future employer(s).
Survival Tip #1: Control the Information
The first step to making sure there are no surprises in your performance review is to control both your behavior and your work product. The horror stories related to summer associate bad behavior are legend in the legal profession. It should go without saying that your summer associate position does not guarantee an offer of post-graduate employment and must be treated as a three-month-long job interview. Be respectful to your coworkers as well as your employer’s resources. Watch your behavior at work-sponsored functions, don’t abuse your expense account, and be careful with the “reply all” function of your e-mail. Of course, adhering to these tips does not end with acceptance of a permanent position.
Controlling your work product can be trickier than controlling your behavior in that you will frequently be at the mercy of circumstances outside of your control, such as deadlines, shifting priorities, and too few hours in the day. It is important that you develop an organizational system early in your career that helps you stay on top of multiple tasks and deadlines. If you are lucky enough to have an assistant, let him know your system and how he can help you stay on top of your work.
When you receive an assignment, make sure you understand what is expected of you. Inquire as to any deadlines as well as the scope of the work and do not assume that your assumptions match those of your supervisor. For example, a partner gives you a research assignment. When you ask about deadlines, she tells you “No hard deadlines. Just get to it when you can.” You calendar it for completion at the end of the next week as you have a number of other projects with hard deadlines in between. Unfortunately (and unbeknownst to you), to the partner “when you can” actually meant “when you can in the next 48 hours.” Later, when she provides feedback for your performance review, she remembers the incident and marks your work as “late” or “does not grasp or is forgetful of assignments.” Confirm your anticipated completion date. If it is vague, suggest specific time frames (“If I calendar that for completion by next week Friday, will that work for you or do you need it sooner?”). If circumstances change during the course of the project, touch base with the individual who assigned it to you to discuss. Work independently but ask questions when necessary.
Survival Tip #2: Understand the Process
When you begin your position, ask about the performance review process. Understand who participates in the review, how the information is gathered, and when the review happens. If you discover there is no review process or that performance reviews are informal, you owe it to yourself to establish a system of feedback that will help you gauge your abilities and your progress. You need this information to properly advance with your current employer or to market yourself to a future employer. Even if your employer has a formal system, checking on your feedback before the actual review can help you correct any issues.
After you complete a project, follow up with the person who assigned it. Ask her if you addressed all the issues or if there is follow-up work that is necessary. If she seems pleased with your efforts, thank her for the assignment and let her know you are available for additional projects. Don’t go overboard and ask her for detailed analysis of your work—she doesn’t have time and you’ll seem to be needy or egocentric. Keep any e-mails or other documentation you may get related to this feedback. Later, you may want to point to your successful track record as a basis for a promotion or to combat information in a less than stellar performance review.
Timing of reviews can also be important, particularly for summer associates. One damaging review at the end of the summer can be devastating when the hiring committee meets to decide on post-graduation offers. For permanent employees, performance reviews are often tied to bonuses, and a lackluster review can tank your chances for additional compensation. Make sure you understand the time lines involved so you have time to react to and correct any problems.
Survival Tip #3: Use the Information (Both Good and Bad)
The dread one feels about a performance review is quickly forgotten if the review is glowing. It is easy to accept praise, and most employees know that a good review can be relied upon to bolster an application for a promotion, a raise, or a bonus. By all means, if your review is good, bask in the glow and use the good information to advance yourself. Don’t forget, however, to discuss your next set of goals and objectives with your employer. In other words, take the time to set yourself up for your next review to be just as positive. Talk to your employer about new responsibilities or new skills you want to develop. Set realistic goals that, while achievable, stretch your abilities and help you grow. Walk away with a clear understanding of what you need to accomplish during the next review period to match or exceed your current review.
If you have a bad performance evaluation, take a minute to compose yourself before you react. If you are blindsided by the information in the evaluation, ask your employer to give you some time to review the feedback and respond. Most review forms have a “comments” section. If you disagree with the review, you should state the reasons in writing. If your review doesn’t have this section, write the reasons you disagree in a separate memo to your supervisor and send a copy to human resources and your supervisor’s boss.
Even if you don’t agree with the assessment, the bad performance review tells you the “issues” your employer has with your work. These are your marching orders for the next review cycle. Carefully document your work and the progress in the problem areas. If you received a negative comment about your attention to detail, make sure to proofread your work and Shepardize case law carefully. Use your system of feedback to document your improvements.
Use performance review information to your advantage when applying for other positions. If your review is bad, tread carefully when providing references from that employer. You may want to approach an individual who was pleased with your work but wasn’t your direct supervisor to serve as a reference for you. Do not assume anyone is an automatic, positive reference ever. Approach the individual, let her know you’d like a reference, and ask if she feels like she is in the position to provide one that will help you in your pursuit of another position. If there is no hope for a good reference, meet with the human resources department so that you understand the employer’s policy on references. Your employer may be willing to confirm dates of employment but otherwise take a position of being unwilling to comment about your performance.
In the end, we all are subject to performance reviews. While we don’t have to like them, we owe it to our professional reputations and development to control the process as much as possible and to utilize the information to our best advantage. The review may be the employer’s tool, but a smart employee can and will use it to his advantage.